NoHo Patch

 Officer Who Engaged Robbers in North Hollywood Shootout Remembers 15 Years Later

John Caprarelli, who retired in 2009, visits the Universal City-North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce networking breakfast Tuesday to recall the notorious crime.

By Craig Clough
February 29, 2012

The loud sounds of automatic gunfire and police sirens interrupted the Universal City-North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce networking breakfast Tuesday morning. One minute, we were happily eating scrambled eggs and sipping coffee. The next minute, the Vista Room at the Sportsmen’s Lodge Hotel was transformed into a war zone.

The bullets, gunfire and blood weren’t real, at least at that moment. But they were very real almost exactly 15 years ago and only a few short miles away at 6600 Laurel Canyon Blvd. in North Hollywood, the scene of one of the most infamous crimes in the history of Los Angeles. As a nine-minute video of news footage highlights played, we sat riveted and silent, with only the occasional gasp of horror coming from the audience.

Today it is called the North Hollywood shootout, and it was only through some luck and the bravery of law enforcement officers like retired Los Angeles Police Department Officer John Caprarelli, who was awarded the department’s Medal of Valor for his actions that day, that it isn’t remembered as the North Hollywood massacre, and that’s because the only people that died that day were the two bank robbers, Larry Phillips, Jr. and Emil Matasareanu.

Caprarelli, who retired in 2009, visited the breakfast Tuesday to recall the day’s events, which are also chronicled in his book, “Uniform Decisions: My Life in the LAPD and the North Hollywood Shootout.”

“It’s 8:08, 63 minutes from being exactly 15 years since an event took place just northeast of here that still stands out today as one of the longest and the most violent bank robberies and shootouts in modern history,” Caprarelli told the audience.

The first thing that prevented Feb. 28, 1997 from being a massacre — luck — occurred when two police officers, Loren Farrell and Martin Perello, spotted the robbers as they entered the Bank of America wearing masks, body armor and carrying assault rifles.

“For an officer to come across any type of crime in progress is pretty rare, but to come across a takeover-style bank robbery is extremely rare. I’ve worked 27 years with guys and never heard of it happening, so we had a lot of luck that day,” Caprarelli said.

What occurred over the next 45 minutes that day was a bloody street battle that saw the robbers fire over 1,100 rounds at officers, civilians and even news helicopters with their illegally-altered assault rifles. Both of the robbers died, one from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, the other from multiple gunshot wounds. Eleven officers and seven civilians were injured.

The second thing that prevented a massacre — bravery — was on display countless times in the video Caprarelli showed. In it, he can be seen engaging the suspects at close range, armed with only a handgun. At one point in the footage, after engaging one of the robbers at a range of only a few dozen yards, he had to dive behind an automobile a split second before rapid gunfire aimed directly at him began to tear the car apart.

“Self preservation just goes out the window at some point, and the training kicks in,” Caprarelli said, trying to recall his thought process during the shootout.

The after-effects of the robbery are still felt today. It forever changed LAPD procedure, particularly in the firepower that officers carry, and how officer-involved shootings are handled.

“We actually got ballistic panels in the police doors of the police cars, which we had never had. We got our own urban police rifles, which are the civilian version of the military’s M-16,” Caprarelli said. “At any time of the day now, in each division there is at least one of these rifles locked down in the trunk. I think if we had had one of those rifles that day after they exited the bank it would have been over much quicker.

“Another thing that is important just as the rest, now, an officer-involved shooting gets a mandatory mental evaluation and de-briefing afterwards. Back then, it wasn’t mandatory. They basically brought a bunch of us into a room like this and offered their services and left a stack of cards, and how many officers do you think went up and took a card to go see the shrink? Nobody. So now that’s mandatory, which I think is good.”

Officer Caprarelli’s book can be purchased through Amazon.com.

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